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What we owe Sir Basil Clarke, by Richard Evans

11th June 2013


Most of us working in public relations realise that, at its heart, our job is a simple one. We find interesting information that we think might help our employer or client to achieve their objectives. And then we tell people about it. This seems such an obvious approach it hardly seems credible that anyone could think differently. Not so. Sir Basil Clarke, the father of the UK’s public relations industry, coined the term “propaganda by news” while leading the British propaganda effort during the Irish War of Independence. This meant finding the pieces of news most likely to win sympathy for the British and issuing them to the press in as neutral language as possible.

Sir Basil Clarke

Source: Annie Bibbings 

In a memo to colleagues at Dublin Castle, he gave a fictitious example of “propaganda by news”:

“After leaving the ‘Blue Pig’ at Tonypandy at 11pm on Saturday night John Jones, miner, a widower, went home and found his child on the doorstep, unable to open the house door before her father’s arrival. He seized her by the hair, beat her with his fist and threw her into a neighbour’s yard. She is aged six and from birth a cripple.” As Clarke pointed out to colleagues, this paragraph does not contain a word of criticism about John Jones. It just sets out the facts. But, Clarke added, “Mr Jones nevertheless, would quite probably be lynched the next morning”. He argued it was actually more powerful like this than it would have been if it had included “commentative adjectives” such as “brutal” and “fiendish”. But Clarke struggled to persuade his colleagues of the merits of “propaganda by news”. They saw the role of public relations as that of a vocal cheerleader and he was still debating the best approach when the war ended. As frustrating as this must have been, the case Clarke put forward provides a template for the work we do today and it has stayed the same despite the huge technological advances in the way we communicate. It is not just our approach to news we can trace back to Clarke. When he came to setting up the UK’s first public relations agency in 1924, he showed a strong commitment to ethics, refusing to work for any cause or company “which has not within it some aspect of definite public interest or worthwhile public service, greater or less” and establishing the first public relations code of ethics. This means he is not just someone we can learn from; he is someone we can be proud to stand on the shoulders of. Clarke also gave us the insight that ethics in public relations is not just something we should do to feel good about ourselves. It is as much a pragmatic issue as it is a moral one. He realised “propaganda by news” would only work if the source of the news was trusted, as your understanding of news and ability to craft key messages counts for nothing if people do not believe what you tell them. It is worth remembering this in our daily lives, often fixated on the next press release, the next pitch. We can afford to lose clients. We can even afford to lose arguments. But we can’t afford to lose our credibility. Richard Evans’s biography of Sir Basil Clarke, From the Frontline, is published by The History Press and is available from http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/

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